STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan) – After 2794 days Zlatan Ibrahimovic took to the field in Serie A again on Monday afternoon hoping to lift an AC Milan side who looked short of ideas.
His return undoubtedly had some kind of impact. The atmosphere was noticeably more positive at the San Siro than it had been for some time. Feelings had been lifted and almost 60,000 turned up to welcome the Swede back, but much of them ended the afternoon by whistling their players off the pitch.
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) January 6, 2020
There’s a feeling around Milan that a superstar has arrived, but there’s something dangerous about celebrating the signing of a 38-year-old forward who’s returning to European football after a spell in Major League Soccer, where he had a relatively unimpressive final standing with Los Angeles Galaxy.
Ibrahimovic can do a lot more with a ball than anyone in this current Rossoneri squad, but that combined with his reputation can pose problems.
Under Stefano Pioli and Marco Giampaolo before him Milan have lacked ideas in attack. They either rely on Suso to find space on the right, bring the ball inside onto his left and do something or they need Theo Hernandez to get forward on the left and find space.
Failing those happening, they shoot from outside the box. Any Milan performance from this season shows the cycle, and it was repeated against Sampdoria.
Suso had one of his off days, Theo had little joy on the left and so Hakan Calhanoglu and co. were chancing their luck from outside the area.
That changed with Ibrahimovic’s arrival. Not because they found a way to be creative though, rather that they had a new obvious route to goal – give the ball to Zlatan.
The No.21 was barely on the pitch before he found himself in possession in the area. He attempted to tee up Rafael Leao but the chance passed, then he had a couple of headers on goal before a number of crosses – high and low – failed to find him.
Krzysztof Piatek was supposed to be their saviour when he arrived from Genoa last winter, but his goals soon dried up and he’s joined the list of Suso, Calhanoglu, Franck Kessie and others who are often vilified by the Rossoneri supporters.
The Polish forward didn’t suddenly lose his touch or become a bad player, but he moved into a toxic environment that would be hard for anyone to succeed in, as the last ten years have proven. He’s not alone.
“We’ve seen on the pitch that there’s a lack of confidence and aggression in the final phase,” Ibrahimovic himself said afterwards.
“We’re not concrete enough in the opponent’s area and we have to understand what to do to get the best out of this team.
“I’ve been here for three or four days and I’ll help Milan in every way I can, but you can see that there is a lack of confidence.”
That confidence can’t be helped by the Curva Sud whistling and hurling abuse at Suso and co. with every misplaced pass or miscued cross.
You have to ask as well how long the increased positivity and goodwill can last. The songs turned to groans in the first half against Samp and then those groans turned to jeers, shouts and whistles in the second, which doesn’t exactly suggest that the patience is plentiful.
At club level Milan will no doubt be hoping they can ride the fell-good vibes of the Ibrahimovic wave for a while yet, but the Curva Sud’s banner reminding them of their last result of 2019 showed before kick off that the signing hasn’t papered over any cracks even on a superficial level.
They need more than just the good feeling brought by Ibrahimovic’s return. They need more than just the basic additional option of playing ‘where’s Zlatan?’ whenever they’re in possession.
Ideas are needed. This season is already another that’s written off, and they can’t afford for 2020/21 to be the same story yet again.